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School Choice: A Declaration of Independence

June 25, 2015 - 11:50am CDT

American democracy was founded on private schooling and parental control of schools. You’d never know that, of course, from the historical mythology of the school unions. If they spent less time weaving fantasies about Thomas Jefferson and more time studying actual history—or just contemplating the principles Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence—they’d discover some uncomfortable realities.

The Oklahoma Education Association says government-run education is “the cornerstone of our republic.” But all education at the time of the American founding was what we now call “private” education. The first schools were established during the colonial era by religious organizations, and that model then spread across the country. Other forms of education included apprenticeship—a path Jefferson followed into the profession of law, studying under George Wythe without earning a law degree—and private tutoring.

The schools this country was founded upon saw themselves as responsible to families, churches, and, in a broad way, the local community. They were not government-owned or government-run. True, before the revolution churches often had a relationship with the state through the establishment of religion. And even when church and state were separated after the revolution, boundaries were not always clear in practice—in a small town, for example, you might have the same set of voters electing, and the same set of leaders sitting on, both the town council and the church elder board. But schools were not understood to be a government function.

This does not mean that education was “private” in the sense of playing no role in the community or having no responsibility to prepare people for good citizenship in a shared, democratic civil society. On the contrary, it was understood by everyone that good education was essential both to community and to democratic values. But schools were not responsible to government; they were responsible to families and churches.

In fact, a strong and democratic civil society cannot be maintained in any other way, as they well knew. The whole point of what they called “democratic and republican” government was that sovereignty rested with the people rather than the rulers. This requires the people to be well formed in the virtues and self-control freedom requires—and that the definition of what that means is not subject to the power of the rulers. Government control over the minds of the young would have been seen by the founding generation as intolerable tyranny.

This is why parental control of schools was so important. Schools were funded by parents’ tuition and by other donations. Their job was to serve parents and raise children in the values parents desired.

We constantly hear Thomas Jefferson invoked as the source of our government school monopoly. Responsible historians have long since shown that Jefferson’s proposals for education bear no resemblance to the government school monopoly we know today, but this doesn’t stop the mythmakers from straining to make the connection. As the web page of an Oklahoma elementary school named for Jefferson solemnly intones: “Our country’s children today are assured a free and public education through his strong-held [sic] belief that educating the masses was the only sure way to ensure our liberty was preserved.”

Crediting Thomas Jefferson as the source of our government monopoly system is about as accurate as crediting him with the abolition of slavery. You can find places where Jefferson said slavery should be abolished. But, as we all know, he shamefully did nothing to help make abolition a reality. The same is true for government control of education.

In fact, the first government school monopoly was created in Massachusetts in the 1830s, as a result of a political movement that repudiated the principles of the American founding. Under the leadership of Horace Mann, this movement had two goals, one economic and one religious. Both of these goals represented a movement away from a self-governing citizenry and toward the sovereignty of a ruling class.

The economic motive was technocratic. As the Industrial Revolution pushed the economy from an agricultural basis to a manufacturing basis, a growing number of people began to think in terms of a division between managers and “the working class”—a concept unknown to the founders. In the eyes of these technocrats, workers had no understanding of their work and brought nothing to the table other than dumb muscle.

A suitable system of education would be needed. The old system allowed families to decide what their children needed to know, and as a result it was (according to the managers) unlikely to prepare people for a new economic world they could not be expected to understand. The new educational system would be under the control of the omniscient and omnibenevolent managing class, who understood what workers did and didn’t need to know in the new economy.

The religious motive was, if anything, more sinister still. Mann and his movement were drawn from the Unitarian world of the wealthy Boston elite. They looked down with scorn and contempt upon the unreconstructed evangelical Calvinism of the Massachusetts countryside—the patrimony of the Puritan settlers. They did not do much to conceal their desire to use the new school system to educate the children of the benighted evangelical masses in the new, enlightened religion of Unitarianism.

Nothing makes me angrier than hearing evangelicals complain that “public schools used to teach the Bible!” Yes, they did. They taught the Bible—for the purpose of cultural genocide against evangelicals. And this genocide was quite successful, as you can discover by trying to find an evangelical in the Massachusetts countryside today.

Thank heaven our Roman Catholic friends were smart enough to see what was going on when the government monopoly was turned against them. Not many Americans in the mid-19th century shared the Boston Brahmins’ contempt for evangelicals, but a lot of them did want to purge Catholic immigrants of their filthy popery. Catholics weren’t having any of it; in the great tradition handed down from the American founding, they ignored the government monopoly and started their own schools. America’s newcomers were more faithful to the principles of their adopted home than America itself was.

This history sheds a new light on why the government school monopoly can’t effectively prepare students for the new economy, or for the moral character and self-government that democracy requires. As a monopoly system, it is inherently technocratic and hostile to innovation and the entrepreneurial virtues. And it cannot explain to children why they should be moral; a monopoly system in a religiously diverse society cannot speak convincingly or act formatively when it comes to virtue.

Today, the road back to self-government and the principles of the Declaration of Independence runs through school choice. Where the rulers control the formation of the minds, hearts, and skills of the young, sovereignty rests with them. Putting parents back in charge of education also puts citizens back in charge of civil society and government.